Tom Sega, CEO of Duluth Pack, has a virtual sit-down with the famous Forager Chef, Alan Bergo, on this episode of Leader of the Pack. Alan shares with host, Tom about his experience running restaurants, growing his own business, writing an ongoing cookbook series, and expressing his knowledge of foraging. Alan breaks down his tactics on where beginners can start and hopefully gain a new hobby and perspective on ingredients they may have hiked by before.
Background on Alan Bergo
Alan begins the conversation by stating that he was born and raised on a farm in Wilmur, Minnesota and that his family still has a wind farm there. After high school, he went to a business school in the Twin Cities to achieve a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration, although his passion has been cooking his entire life. It started as a side job for Alan; his first job was being a cook at McDonald’s. Furthermore, he worked in the campus cafeteria during college but quickly got bored and accepted a job at a local steakhouse, which gave him his first authentic taste of actual scratch cooking. Alan decided to pursue a career in the culinary industry rather than business after recognizing his true passion. Tom asks Alan how he decided to stray away from business and focus on becoming a professional chef. If that’s pretty common, chefs should start out doing one thing and then eventually dive into culinary. Alan replies, “Cooking is a really good side job, and a pretty common theme in the culinary world is you go to school for something while cooking is your side job, and then you realize you adore cooking and decide to make it your career.” Alan quickly made his way up in the restaurant industry, cooking at some of the most prestigious restaurants in the Twin Cities, such as Heartland and Lucia’s, and because of the restaurants’ daily changing tasting menus sourced from ingredients from 200 miles of Minnesota, he became acquainted with wild ingredients such as mushrooms and leeks.
Falling in Love with Foraging
Alan states that he was blown away by being able to work with some of the best and freshest ingredients possible. He became so familiar with some of these natural ingredients that he could recognize them without question in the wild and then bring them back to the restaurant to incorporate into his cooking. He tells Tom that during a round of frisbee golf, he saw the same mushrooms he cleaned in the kitchen the night before, and that was when “A light went off in my brain,” and from there, he bought all the literature on mushrooms he could find to educate himself on foraging. Alan states that he has been studying wild plants for over ten years now, and something that started off as a hobby quickly became a passion and career. At this point in his life, he was still working at Lucia’s, and he supplied his kitchen with all new ingredients he learned about and/or picked as he was broadening what he was harvesting. Tom asks Alan if anyone can pick mushrooms whenever and wherever. He says that you must be certified for mushrooms, which Alan is 50/50, because mushrooms are a non-native and invasive species that could disrupt our ecosystem. Tom brought this point up because he has been having trouble finding morel mushrooms where he lives and asks Alan how you even begin to look for a morel mushroom. Alan replies, “It’s about knowing your woods. Specifically, the kind of trees that are around. In North America, we have over ten different types of morel mushrooms, and each of those morels will have certain conditions that they like.” He continues to explain that the conditions for each morel are very specific. For example, black morel mushrooms typically grow close to Aspen trees that have about the thickness of a soda can and are young in nature, about shoulder-width apart. Unfortunately, in 2016 Lucia’s closed, and Alan was out of a job. However, this didn’t slow Alan down; he went from a full-time chef to creating his own brand.
The Forager Chef
After Lucia’s closed, Alan sold his three-part book, The Forager Chef’s Book of Flora, and started doing some freelance work with the thought that he would go back to the restaurant industry eventually, but he tells Tom that at this point in his life he was extremely burnt-out and needed something new. He started shooting videos, doing some grant work, doing freelance product photography, and making video content for lamb and goat farms – who he still works with today. This quickly became a “well-oiled machine” that allowed him to become self-employed as “The Forager Chef.” A fun fact he shares with Tom is that his website started as a journal for him to jot down cool forager findings and fun recipes that include wild ingredients, but his roommate at the time was a SEO Analyst, so he helped Alan turn it into a website. Alan tells Tom that it’s mainly a teaching tool: information for harvesting things, how to avoid poisonous species, etc. Although his career has gained him thousands of followers, the main thing Alan wants to accomplish is that he wants to bring those who use nature together – people who know plants, people who know mushrooms, people who hunt, we’re all the same. He tells Tom, “I’m a chef, not a botanist, but if I can teach myself how to eat 50 to 60 species of mushrooms and probably double that in the number of wild plants, I think anyone could. I’m just a normal guy who is a professional cook and professional eater.” Because winters are undeniably long in Minnesota, Tom asks Alan what he does in the winter season. Alan replies, “Winter is a time for processing things (like cracking nuts and making acorn flour) as well as work with a lot of meat. I also harvest sheep and work with a lot of deer. Butchery is like my second love.” He also explains that the winter season gives the perfect opportunity to develop different cooking techniques. From achieving nutcracking skills, fermenting, pickling, or cooking with preserves, the wintertime makes experimenting easier because he is outdoors looking for ingredients in the warmer seasons.
It was such a pleasure to listen to Alan Bergo share all his experiences and knowledge of foraging and harvesting wild ingredients. Like us, Alan is happy to call Minnesota his home and works to unite outdoor enthusiasts into one larger group. He believes in mastering Minnesota’s diverse ecosystems and is always learning to use new ingredients in new ways. His love for the Midwest and the state of Minnesota reminds us of the pride we all have and why we love to call it home. Thank you, Alan, for sharing your story with us at Duluth Pack!